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What to Do While Your Boss is On Vacation

1Happy summer. I hope you all are enjoying the sunshine, popsicles, beach, pool, or whatever fun things that summer means to you. Top of the list, of course, is vacation! The summer months can become a game of “who’s in the office” and “can you cover for me while I’m out” requests to and from coworkers.

Most likely, one of the people who is going to take time away is your boss. He or she may be out of the office for a decent chunk of time…perhaps ten days or even more. This presents you with a great opportunity. No, I’m not advising a “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” mentality. Although, if your boss’ absence gives you any sort of breathing room, I strongly advise you make the most of it. This might mean taking stock of any outstanding projects, getting caught up on those lingering to do’s that have turned into to don’ts, cleaning up your email, creating systems to help you stay organized, or other wild and crazy things. I know, I know. I should really get out more.

Here’s a suggestion I have for you if your manager is on vacation for more than four days. Write up a summary with a high-level overview of key events or occurrences in that time period. This can take many different forms, all dependent on what makes sense for your boss and your office. It could be simply a bulleted email saying something like, “Welcome back. Here’s an update of some key things I thought you would want to know about.” Then, you can include what you think would be important to your boss. For example, your list might include, “We did not receive any comments on the Project x report” and “The regular update of the invoicing system went well.” Or, perhaps “We’ve made progress on gathering feedback about the pilot study and have received 35% of the surveys” or “I took a call from Mr. Brown who had concerns about the software. It escalated to a call with Pete and the problem was corrected.”

You can provide an update regardless of the type of industry you are in. Just think “What will my boss want to know?” How you present this to your boss is also a matter of preference and opinion. If you know she lives by email, then by all means send an email with clear subject line and list what you think she’ll want to know. Or, perhaps it is appropriate to save it for a meeting or even a ‘drop in’ to the office. It is extremely comforting for your manager to hear you say “I know you are still digging out, but here is a list of some highlights of what happened while you were out. I’ll leave this here for you to review when you’re able. Just holler if you have any questions.” If you are in a very formal, paper-centric place, you might even leave a print out in an inbox along with the pile of mail or whatever else your boss will be reviewing.

When you provide this overview for your boss, you are reinforcing that you can be trusted and also that you want to keep your boss in the loop. This is the type of action that really gets noticed. Make the most of your boss’ vacation time to show your work super powers. It’s all part of managing your manager. Happy summer!

 

Managing and Understanding Your Micromanager

Group of people at work

Do you have a micromanaging boss? We’ve all been there. It makes you feel like you have no control at work and that your boss has zero confidence in you. All is not lost! It is possible for you to manage your micromanager. First, you have to understand why he or she is acting this way. Here are the different types of micromanagers and some tips for handling them.

The Egocentric

Be aware of her need to feel important. Update her on your work, particularly about anything that is visible to higher ups. She wants to look good. Who doesn’t? Let’s say you have an idea but aren’t sure if she will support you on it. When you present it, you should explain how this idea will help establish your department as a leader in a certain area. Or, basically, how it will make her look good. You should demonstrate how doing this is forward thinking, innovative, financially sound, etc. Also, use phrases like “I wanted to see what you thought about this before I move ahead with it”, or — and this one  can be magic — “I want to get your take on this, but I defer to you.” You have to make sure she doesn’t feel that you are threatening her power. Eventually, you will build trust if she knows that you will run things by her first.

With the egocentric, you need to pick your battles. Don’t argue for the sake of arguing! Make a conscious decision about what you want to push back on and what you will let slide. If she suggests something that you don’t agree with, you can question it and strategically “fight back.” Explain how whatever it is that you disagree with will put your department (and more specifically, your boss) at a disadvantage.

The Perfectionist

This person has to have it done “just so” and genuinely believes that his way is the only way to do things. This was certainly the case with my “That’s not how I would have done it” boss. The perfectionist has a low tolerance for approaches that are different than what he had in mind. Someone that particular about how work is done will literally look over your shoulder and make corrections as you are doing the work. This reluctance for new approaches and fear of having things done in a less tried-and-true approach is debilitating.

The perfectionist needs reassurance that you will follow his directions. I know that you can feel extremely frustrated when your perfectionist boss has an expected outcome in his head, but doesn’t share that with you. He assumes that what he is thinking matches what you will do. Since you are not a mind reader (although, if you can do this, please contact me and share the details), it is important to ask your boss questions that clarify his expectations upfront. When he gives you a task, ask about his desired format and the level of detail he expects. It is particularly helpful to understand what he will do with whatever it is that you complete. Will the information be shared with his boss? Is it background information that he is using for a client meeting? Is he going to insert your draft into another report he is creating? Whatever it is, once you understand the importance of this deliverable to your boss you can determine the level of care and feeding it deserves.

If you think you won’t be able to deliver on a deadline, let your boss know immediately. Nothing ticks the perfectionist off more than someone who doesn’t follow directions or meet deadlines. Also, observe the hot buttons for your boss. I know someone at work who detests the word “leverage” and you’d better believe I avoid using that word in any correspondence.

The Micromanaged Micromanager

This boss has someone (or many people) micromanaging her! Since she is being criticized and scrutinized by her boss, clients, users, media, whomever, she is reacting by breathing down your neck. It’s a bad case of dominos and you are suffering because of it. She may be jittery, defensive or downright unpleasant. Of course, the problem is compounded if she is also a perfectionist or egocentric.

Your micromanaged manager needs to know that you support her and that you want to help her and your office address the critics.By turning your radar on, you should be able to get a glimpse of the scrutiny your boss is under. Your observations of your boss’ boss and the overall flow of information, and power, at work will be informative.

As with the Perfectionist, when she gives you an assignment, you want to be sure to understand why your boss needs it and what she will be doing with it. Ask questions like “Would it make things easier for you if I <insert whatever it is>?” For example, “Would it make things easier for you if I drafted the email for your review first?” or “Would it make things easier for you if I added a mockup to the proposal?”  She needs to know that you are on her side, and you will be amazed how the dynamic can change once you figure out who she is trying to please and why. Nothing units people like a common enemy. You must position yourself as someone who helps her succeed instead of another critical person who is waiting for her to fail.

Of course, none of us fit into a box. But, the important thing to realize is that most micromanagers are acting that way out of fear and insecurity. Once you understand your boss’ motivations and pressure, you can respond in a way to build trust, relieve them of some of their fear and soon get some control over the micromanaging. Head it off at the pass!

Oops!: When You Insult Your Coworker

When you insult your coworkerYou know how it can feel OK for you to complain about your brother or sister or cousin or friend or whomever, but you get upset and protective if you hear anyone else do it. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it is certainly a thing! There is an unspoken feeling of having earned the right to be critical by how close you are to the person or situation you are complaining about.

The same is true at work. Beware of falling into a trap where you try to join in a gripe-fest, but manage to upset the people griping.

One of my previous jobs required me to track and document publications and other items gathered from hundreds of different places. It was an attempt at a “library of best practices” from different sources. I was astonished at the low-tech approach for tracking and managing these items. One of my coworkers kept referring to a database they used to track the items. However, when she showed me the database I was stunned since it was actually an Excel spreadsheet. While I could do many cool things with the spreadsheet – I couldn’t quickly do the more advanced things that I would expect to do with a database.

I was new in the position, and trying to get a handle on how I would move forward with this project. My coworker, who was handing off this task to me, kept complaining about what a mess it was. She rattled off a list of complaints and I quickly absorbed her frustration. How could I improve the situation?

Without thinking it through, I joined in the complaining. Then I said the fatal words…”It’s not even a database! It’s a spreadsheet.” Her whole tone changed, and she went off on how the spreadsheet IS a database and how much it helps. Turns out she is the one who created the spreadsheet in the first place. Oops! You’d have thought I insulted her child. In a sense, I did.

It took me a long time to recover from that misstep. She didn’t trust me and felt that I was judging her work.

Beware of criticizing work tools or projects, particularly when you don’t know the whole history. You can suggest ways to improve them or ask about different approaches, but do this carefully and positively! There is a difference between saying “This spreadsheet stinks.” and “It would be awesome if we could do advanced searching and reporting. Can I investigate ways that we could do that?”

Feel Like Your Coworkers are From Mars? Career and Life Advice from “The Martian”

Career Advice from The MartianTalk about feeling lonely and abandoned at work! Consider Matt Damon’s character from the movie “The Martian.” The main character, Mark Watney, is left behind on Mars when his fellow crew members abort their mission after believing he was killed during a storm. In fact, he is alive and the movie shows how he survives on the planet while waiting (and hoping) for NASA to realize he is alive and plan a rescue mission.
Think about Mark Watney when you are having a bad day at work. Seriously, try to imagine being completely alone on another planet. Of course, you may feel that way already! Here are some lessons from The Martian about how to handle unbelievably crazy situations at work and life. (Warning, there might be some spoilers here. Proceed accordingly!)
  1. Acknowledge what is going on — Once Mark comes to and makes it back to the home base, he records a video. He lays it all out (the limited food supply, not knowing how to contact NASA, understanding that it will take years for them to be able to rescue him, and all the potentially horrible things that could happen on top of the already grim situation). This is about as bad as it can get. But, there is power is acknowledging the facts. Only then can you move into trying to figure out how to fix it.
  2. Focus on what you can control — After he acknowledges how bad things are, he attacks the situation with logic, ingenuity, his scientific expertise and serious problem solving. He breaks down the situation and chips away at what is in his control. This approach is available to you.  Instead of giving up at work, you can break down the situation, assess what you can do to make it better, and then work on your plan to improve it.
  3. Assume the best of your colleagues — While Mark is stunned at the situation, he never once blames the crew or directs anger at them. True, he is part of a highly-functioning team. But, consider how easy and tempting it would be for him to blame everyone/anyone for leaving him behind. The same is true for all of us in the workplace. Even if your colleagues give you many reasons to distrust them, nothing good comes from being consumed by anger. Assume the best of your colleagues. Give them the benefit of the doubt and it is much more likely that they will do the same for you.
  4. Set goals and be patient — He had clear goals and every day he worked towards meeting them. You can’t expect to have a magic wand that will immediately make things better. But, when you have goals that you want to achieve, and a plan for how to get there, it is much easier to tolerate being patient. Having goals with defined steps and milestones can be empowering. Once you know that you are working towards something positive, and understand that getting there is a process, it’s much easier to commit to a long haul.
  5. Have a sense of humor — Mark is well aware of how grave his situation is, but he still manages to have a sense of humor about it. Despite the situation, he can find some humor in his day-to-day and gives himself permission to not take himself too seriously. It’s very helpful if you do the same. Even if you are miserable at work, allow yourself to laugh and not take yourself too seriously.This can make even the most tense or unpleasant situations better.
The saying “it could always be worse” is very true. But, when you are having a rough time just be thankful that you aren’t abandoned on another planet. Hey, it’s all relative, right? At any rate, these lessons from The Martian can come in handy even on Earth.

Discouraged at Work? How to Get What You Want

GetWhatYouWantAtWorkAs you walk into work each morning, do you think to yourself “Wasn’t I just here yesterday?” Do you get a mean case of grumpy-itis every Sunday night?Do you feel totally unmotivated at work and ask yourself “What am I doing?”

Who hasn’t been there? Of course, if you are completely miserable you should work on a plan to get the heck out and land a new job or a situation that works well for you. BUT, there are things you can do to make your job support you! Short of walking in and quitting without having another job or a plan, here are some things you can do to regain some control over your work and start to make work actually work for you.

  • What’s Bugging You? — Do you love your job but hate the people you work with? Maybe you actually don’t like the work and want to move into something different? Do you feel unappreciated? Unrecognized? Bored? Figuring out what is driving you nuts is a good first step. You may not even realize why you are so frustrated. It takes some soul-searching to figure out what is really bugging you. Work through it, and keep asking “why?”  Why do you hate your boss? Why do you hate that project? You may just surprise yourself with the answers. Instead of saying “I hate my boss” you may discover that “I hate my boss since he talks down to me and insists on reviewing everything, which makes me feel untrusted.” If you can chip away at the heart of the problem, then you’ll be better able to face it and, hopefully, fix it.
  • What Do You Want? Once you’ve figured out what’s bugging you, you should also try to figure out what you want. Do you want more trust? Authority? Respect? Freedom? Maybe you want to learn about something different, move into another field, or work with different people. It’s very liberating to identify what you want. Maybe you realize you want to become a graphic designer instead of doing project management work. The trick is figuring out how you can use your current position to get there.
  • Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open Instead of being angry (or while being angry) about everything happening at work, try to be objective. Observe what is going on. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn by watching the people you work with. You want to understand what is and is not important to them, how your coworkers interact with each other and, most importantly, what motivates or ticks off your boss. Let’s say you are in a meeting and feeling totally checked out, or, even worse, angry about how the meeting is going. You can find some relief in being objective and jotting down stuff you notice. For example, you might observe:
    • Bob was angry that two people were late to the meeting.
    • Bob repeated that we have to “be prepared for the conference coming up in three months.”
    • Cheryl proposed a new idea, but Bob asked for data to back it up.
    • Sue was doodling the whole time of the meeting and she seemed irritated.

It doesn’t take too long to start seeing some patterns. You may already know these things, but don’t assume. There is power in documenting what you see and starting to connect the dots. Once you figure out the patterns, you are understanding what spells success at work and with your boss.

  • Abracadabra –Put these three things together for some magic. Once you realize why you feel so lousy at work and also what you want, you should connect the dots between what you want and the “rules” that you have observed. You can figure out how and if what you want supports your company’s/boss’ goals. For example, you realize that you are sick of the mindless spreadsheet work that you are doing and feel like you are being micromanaged. You want to become a graphic designer, even though it is indirectly related to the project management work you are doing. Your boss is worried about planning for a conference that is coming up and responds well to requests supported with data. You propose that a big presentation for the conference could benefit from some graphic design help. You pull out some data showing how visually appealing presentations are more successful, and then you propose to be the person who coordinates the work of your graphic design department (or you could offer to do it yourself if you won’t step on anyone’s toes). You promise to keep your micromanaging boss posted, explain that he will have full editorial control, and show how this additional task will not impact your current work. BAM! How can he say no to that? If, for some reason, he does say no, than his response just gives you more clues for how to approach it next time.

This isn’t easy, but it really works. The burden is on you to connect the dots between what you hate, what you want, and what your office and boss need. You can do it!

What You Don’t Want to Hear from Your Boss: “That’s Not How I Would Do It”

Colorful speech bubbles I still remember the sting of those words from my boss many years ago when she was reviewing something I put together for her. I stood in her office staring at her grimace while she looked over the paper I handed her. She looked at me and said, “That’s not how I would have done it.” Then, she told me how to redo the work I just spent hours on. She fixated on the formatting of the document I worked on, and I felt that her comments were all super nit-picky.

Of course, we all have to be prepared and willing to take feedback. Plus, it is always easier for someone to give specific feedback as a reaction to something that is already done. Yet in this situation, I was frustrated and demoralized since I felt my boss was making changes just to change them and shape the project in her own image.

I could have avoided this whole situation by asking the right questions up front. When you receive a request to do something from your boss, you should first make sure you understand what she wants. And, even more importantly, understand why she wants it done at all. Treat your boss like your client, and see if you need any more information on the Why, What or How of the request.

What you ask will depend on the project and your boss, but here are a few questions I should have asked my boss to help me manage her micromanage-y, perfectionist tendencies:

  • Do you have a format in mind?
  • How long should this be?
  • How will the document be used?

My questions would have focused on the how (how should it look and how will it be used) since I already knew she was often concerned about appearance and formatting. The answers to these questions would have warded off the issues that came up later. I could have also said things like “would you like this to look like the memo you did last week?” or thrown out some examples  for her to react to.  

Also, it would have helped to know that this was an important document to her and that she was going to run it by upper management for final approval. She wants to look good — heck, who doesn’t —  and she was going to be darned sure that the document I wrote made her look good to her bosses. Or, at least, she would make sure that the document didn’t make her look bad!

Asking these simple questions who have helped me understand my boss’ motivation and the main requirements she was placing on me. There is no better way to ward off a micromanager than to clarify expectations and also understand what scrutiny they feel they are under.

You can ask these questions in an email, request a meeting with your boss or just ask in passing if the opportunity to do so comes up. Don’t delay in getting clarification.

To make sure that what you think you are supposed to do matches what your boss expects you to do, you can send an email summarizing your discussion and outlining what you are working on. This email lets you confirm that your assumptions are correct and gives you the chance to ask any more questions. For example, in my situation, I could have avoided grief if I wrote my boss saying something like: “I’m writing to follow up on your request for me to draft the email to the board about the recent survey. The document should be 5 pages. It will start with an executive summary and then I’ll break down the research methods, responses, analysis, and main findings. I’ll get it to you by Friday so that you have a chance to review it before you send it to Bill for his final review.”

With that email, I would have clarified my boss’ expectations, made my life easier by avoiding what my boss would have perceived as errors, and also helped to build my relationship with my boss by showing her that I listened and would deliver work she could trust.

If in doubt, ask! If you can manage your boss’ expectations, you will be one step closer to getting control over your job instead of your job (and boss) controlling you. 

How to Get Your Emails Read!

Email2

I know, I know…..a post about the joys of email. *Yawn*  But seriously, just think how your life at work would change if you knew that your emails would get read. Do you feel like your emails to your boss or colleagues are unnoticed? It is so frustrating to painstakingly craft an email, take a deep breath, hit send, and then nothing. Silence. Crickets.

Here are some things you can do to increase the odds that you’ll get a response. While these suggestions don’t solve the problem of getting a response from a totally non-communicative person, I’ve had great success with all of them I highly recommend you give them a try.

Say What? It’s All About the Subject

The subject line should clearly tell the recipients what the email is about and why they need to open  Just by glancing at the subject line, the recipient knows what to expect from the email and what action is required. Don’t fall into the trap of just listing nouns! In this case, more is not less.

Example 1

Good
For Review: Draft Content Strategy Report
Ok, so you are telling me that you want me to review a draft report. You want me to give you feedback and comments.

Not as Good
Content Strategy Report
You are telling me that the email is about the content strategy report, but I don’t know if I should expect a simple question or a draft to review. I have no idea what action is expected from me  

Bad, aka, Please don’t do this!
Report
What repot? Duh? What about it? What do you want from me? I have no idea what this is about. I may not even open this email.  

Example 2

Good
Quarterly Report. Comments Needed by May 17th
Before opening the email, I know that it contains the quarterly report that you want me to review. Plus, I understand that you need the comments by a certain date.

Not as Good
Quarterly Report Draft
Again, it isn’t clear if you have a question about the draft or if you are sending the draft itself. Plus, I have no sense of any deadline or time urgency for when you want my comments.

Bad
Quarterly Report
So what? What are you telling me about the quarterly report? There is no indication that you need anything in return. I would assume that the email contains a final version of the report.

Example 3

Good
Agenda & Background for 12/4 Planning Meeting
You’ve clearly told me what is in the email. I know which meeting this is for and can safely assume this email has details to help me with the meeting along with the agenda.

Not as Good 
12/4 Planning Meeting
What about the meeting? Are there questions? Is it cancelled? Do you need anything?

Bad
Meeting Agenda
Which meeting? I go to many meetings and have no idea which meeting you are referring to. Which agenda is this? Do you need anything from me? I may not even open this email since I don’t have a clue what it is about.

Seriously, the subject line can really make or break it. Make it clear and use the subject line to  tell the recipients upfront what the email is about and what actions or deadlines apply to them.

Deadlines

Think about it. If you have to choose between two tasks at work and one has a deadline that day and one doesn’t, which would you do first? Assuming you can fight the desire to procrastinate, you’ll probably do the one with the deadline. Or, hopefully, you’ll have in mind when you will be able to accomplish it that day.

People are much more likely to reply if you give them a deadline. If the deadline passes with no response to your email, you can just hit “reply all” on the original letter and ask “Do you have any comments on the <insert project name>? Please refer to the email below.” This covers you so that you can show you asked for feedback, and usually prods people into replying.

You can take this a step further. Tell them the action that you will take after that deadline. In most cases, it is reasonable to say “If I don’t hear from you by <insert date>, I will assume it you have no edits”  or “Please review this draft and let me know if you have any changes by Wednesday, June 10. I plan on sending this out the afternoon of June 11.”

However, you know your boss the best. If your boss would flip out if you take action with the copy before she reviewed it, then by all means don’t use this approach!

Front and Center

Don’t bury the main point of the email. Yes, there is a place for background and additional information, but you should put any action items up front and center. Let’s say you are asked to research something and make recommendations based on those metrics. You could start out with a lengthy explanation of the research and close it with the recommendations. BUT NO ONE WILL READ ALL OF IT. They will either skip to the end or, even worse, not read any of it and overlook your work entirely. You should start it off by giving a concise summary and statement of your recommendations.

For example, you could say something like “After researching <insert whatever it is>, I recommend that we <do this>.” Then, after you explain your recommendations, you can say something like, “Highlights and background on the research follow.” Below that, you can lay out the details.

Example
After researching the costs of different paint colors, I’ve confirmed that purple paint costs 25% less than green paint. I recommend that we start buying purple paint instead of green paint. This should not impact production and will reduce overall costs by 30%. Highlights and background on the research follow.

Then, below the main take-away, you can provide more background. If they want to read it, they will.

Don’t Play Mad-Libs

The person receiving your email shouldn’t wonder what the heck you are talking about. Put your thoughts in context. And, for goodness sake, respond with a complete thought. Don’t just write one word answers.  If you get an email asking a question, don’t just respond with a “Yes” or “No’ unless it is absolutely appropriate. Try to anticipate any follow up questions and provide that in your response.

As much of a pain as email is, you can use some of these tricks to try to make sure your emails are read and understood.

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